Climate change is devastating Bhutan. Its King chose a trail race to demonstrate how.
Sarah Keyes is no stranger to adversity. In 2020, the 37-year-old New York-based nurse went after a Fastest Known Time of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, completing the effort in under five days, all while battling an injury. In 2017, she limped her way to finishing Western States, despite suffering extreme maceration of her feet. So when she faced the inaugural Bhutan Snowman Race, which bills itself as “the world’s toughest,” no one was betting against her.
Mountain passes above 17,000 feet, extremely technical trails, and hip-deep mud proved too much for some of the heartiest runners in the race, Keyes included. Eleven of the 30 invited runners dropped out. While DNFs always sting, Keyes doesn’t have regrets about this one. “I’m used to racing being all about my performance, but this time I had a different focus,” she explains.
Like Keyes, all of the athletes participating in this first-time event took on the 126-mile, five-stage Himalayan race with a mission bigger than winning: to bear witness to climate change and then share what they saw.
The Snowman Race is unique in every aspect. The brainchild of His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the course is part showcase, part athletic pursuit, and above all else, part effort to protect and preserve the pristine, wild environment that is the tiny nation of Bhutan. Despite being the world’s first carbon-negative nation, the impacts of climate change are far-reaching and catastrophic here.
“Bhutan is nestled between China and India, and even though the nation doesn’t contribute to climate change, it’s the first to suffer it’s impacts,” says Luis Escobar, who served as the event’s race director. “His Majesty the King created the event to combine his love of the mountains and the outdoors, and showcase the impact of climate change.”
Along with a committee of government officials, Escobar has been working on the race since 2019, when Bhutan had originally planned to stage the event. The pandemic got in the way, but the team continued organizing and selecting the right runners for the day. “I’ve been an RD for more than 15 years, but I’ve never done anything on this scale,” says Escobar.
The course itself featured what Escobar deemed to be three serious factors: the extreme altitude being one. Staged over five days, athletes began the first day at over 9,000 feet and wound their way up to over 16,000 feet. “On the third day, the race topped out over 18,000 feet,” he explains. “Ultimately, the lack of acclimatization hurt many of the international athletes.”
Day three is when Keyes experienced dangerous altitude sickness and had to come down out of the mountains. Hailing from low altitude, taking on an event in the Himalayas without much chance to acclimate was tough, she says. “We had the privilege of spending the days leading up to the race touring the country and getting to know the culture and its people,” she says. “The only downside is that we spent most of that time around 7,000 feet, which made it tough to go so high on day one.”
Escobar says the second big challenge of the race was its remote nature. “We were far away from anything,” he says. “The race started at a fortress called Gasa Dzong, which is located a four-hour drive from the capital, half of that on dirt roads.”
Once the athletes began the race, they had to make it to the finish of each stage before having any method of dropping out, if necessary. The Bhutanese military served as sweep, ensuring any runners in trouble made it to the “night halt,” or aid station. These were communities in and of themselves, complete with tents, medical and communications teams. “Everything had to be brought in on foot, as these trails are not suitable for vehicles,” says Escobar.
Nate Bender, a 34-year-old climate activist and ultrarunner, was among those who finished all five stages of the race. “I finished thanks to a combination of luck and perseverance,” he says. “But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It became only a question of surviving to the finish, not competition.”
Which speaks to the third challenging element of the race course—the trails themselves. “I’ve never been on consistently difficult trails like this before,” says Bender. “There were no smooth sections, just miles of uninterrupted mud, rocks, and roots.”
The Snowman course covered what is a connector trail between highland villages. As such, it’s frequently traveled by yaks, mules, horses, and foot traffic, making for deep divots and extraordinarily uneven terrain. The mud the athletes encountered was the result of the recent monsoon season—something new to Bhutan caused by climate change.
The chief reason His Majesty the King choose a trail race to highlight climate change in Bhutan is that he knew trail runners could cover more ground and see more damage than any other type of athlete, and that it’s a population uniquely tied to nature. “I was out on the trails for 15 nights, and every night, you hear the sounds of rocks falling and ice splashing into water,” says Escobar. “The glaciers are melting, the lakes are swollen, and the rivers are overflowing.”
Keyes saw the damage firsthand, too, and learned how climate change is devastating the local people of Bhutan. “The first female to finish the race was Bhutanese and she recently lost family members to a landslide,” she says. “These traditional villages are built into ravines and are simply washed away now with no warning.”
For his part, Bender hopes to tie what he witnessed in Bhutan to what’s happening in his home state of Montana. “Research shows our brains don’t really engage with tragedies happening half-way around the world,” he says. “We saw flooding in southwest Montana last year, exacerbated by climate change. It’s happening the world over and if we can make it immediate and tangible for people, it might help.”